Science teacher among nation’s best

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May 3, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Claire Overstake is hoping a new bullet point on her resume will help land her a job in the immediate area: Presidential award for excellence in science teaching.
Overstake, 54, is moving to Iola in May to join her husband, Grant, who has accepted a position as managing editor at The Iola Register.
The prestigious award comes with a $10,000 stipend plus a personal audience with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., as part of a week’s worth of seminars and celebratory events sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
Overstake won the award for her role as a middle school science teacher in 2009-2010 while the couple lived in Hillsboro and she taught at nearby Goessel. They had since moved to Marshfield, Mo., where Overstake currently teaches middle school social science.
Overstake was in Iola Monday as she prepared for an interview she had with the Erie school district for a combined math and science teaching post. She’s certified to teach middle school science, math, social studies and language arts as well as elementary education, but no school in the Iola area has any openings, she said.
Overstake received her degree in elementary education from the University of Kansas in 1980, and besides stints as an officer/minister with The Salvation Army, has dedicated her adult life to education.

THE TRICK to making science interesting is to show its relevancy to students’ lives, she said.
“Students take computers and cell phones for granted because the technology has been around all their lives,” she said. “But when they see their older siblings having to curtail their driving habits because of the high cost of fuel, all of a sudden they’re interested in looking at how to develop alternative energy sources.”
Weekly labs provide hands-on learning in Overstake’s classes.
Last week’s lesson involved combining potassium permanganate and glycerin, producing a slow-acting shield volcano.
“The kids started to walk away,” she said, when all of a sudden fire started spewing from the concoction as the “lava” poured out of its interior, demonstrating an exothermic reaction.
Overstake also makes up songs to help students remember mathematical formulas. She relayed a message from a former student who was stuck on a question during her college entrance exams. The student recalled one of Overstate’s ditties, and the answer came clear.
Middle school is the best age to teach, Overstake said. “The students are old enough to challenge, yet young enough to be eager to learn and still like to have fun, just as I do.”
Overstake became eligible for the presidential award after being named the top science teacher for Kansas for the 2009-10 school year. Her entry for the top award included a video and written presentation about Newton’s First Law of Motion as presented to her sixth-graders.
While at Goessel, Overstake taught science for sixth through eighth grade and pre-algebra to seventh- and eighth-graders.
In today’s world Overstake views teaching as part instruction and part mission work. She often starts each week with a quote that she hopes her students will take to heart.
Last week’s quote, “Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star,” by W. Clement Stone, is an example. Another favorite, “A best friend walks in when a whole world walks out,” also hits the mark with middle schoolers, she said.
Overstake frequently finds her students in a world of hurt.
“Sometimes I’m their parent, even when I don’t want to be,” she said. She recalled a recent conversation where a parent told Overstake she was responsible for her child’s actions “during school hours.”
At last fall’s parent-teacher conferences only three of a possible 260 parents attended.
“There have been no ‘pleases’ or ‘thank yous,’” this year.
“It changes from student to student, year to year, place to place,” she said of student behaviors. 
At Goessel, a predominantly Mennonite community, parents were heavily involved with their children’s activities, she said.
For most kids, the demands of their parents shape their own expectations, she said.

OVERSTAKE understands the rewards of discipline, both in and out of the classroom. Besides being a top educator, Overstake is a top athlete.
In high school and college she competed in sprints and hurdles.
She still likes the hurdles, but has found a new love — pole vault. “Oh, that’s a blast,” she said.
For a petite woman, Overstake said her 5-foot 2-inch frame has never been an impediment to her athletic pursuits.
“No one ever set limitations on me,” she said of her athletic endeavors, which included high school basketball and volleyball.
She credits her “tomboy” youth as a precursor to an active life as an adult.
“We stayed outside until dusk playing tag, hide-and-go-seek, and other such games,” she said with a shrug.
She took a 10-year hiatus in the 1980s from competitive sports during the births of her three children, Bethany, 26, Garrison, 24, and Jillian, 23.
In her late 30s, Overstake picked up the pace again. Today she holds the national title as a decathlete in masters-level competitions.
She plans to move to Iola in late May.
“School’s out in Marshfield May 28,” she said, a later-than-normal date because of 11 snow days incurred from an unusually frigid and snowy winter.

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